On September 7, 2016, at the age of 92, Norbert Schemansky died. While Vera Caslavska, the great Czech gymnast, passed away to considerable international press recently, Schemansky left the world with relatively less fanfare.
Schemansky won a gold, a silver and two bronze medals over four Olympiads from 1952 to 1964, an American hero by any standard. But he was a weight lifter, a sport not perceived as popular as gymnastics, as sexy as swimming, or as compelling as the sprints.
In fact, one of America’s greatest weight lifters, along with the likes of Tommy Kono, has lived not only in obscurity, but in relative poverty.
Here’s how Sports Illustrated described the native of Dearborn, Michigan in 1966. “Watched moodily by the one friend who believes in him, Norbert Schemansky works out faithfully in a sleazy underground gym and ponders his years as the world’s greatest weight lifter, an achievement that wins him neither glory nor a job to help support his family.”
According to the same article, Schemansky would commute into Detroit to look for any work: pool lifeguard ($1 an hour), cleaning toilets ($1 an hour), or going on beer sales calls to bars by lifting heavy kegs over his head. In 1948 and 1952, when Schemansky actually had steady work, he was given no favor. In fact, instead of being the pride and joy of his company, he was unceremoniously shown the door. Again, here’s Sports Illustrated:
In 1948, while working in a factory owned by a celebrated sportsman, he needed time off to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics in London. He got the time off—without pay—and won a silver medal. In 1952, while working at the same factory, he requested time to compete in the Olympics at Helsinki. The word went upstairs, and the word came down: “Sure, he can have all the time he wants. Fire him.” Schemansky went anyway, and beat the undefeated Russian world champion, Gregori Novak. He came home with a gold medal, caught a bus from the airport to downtown Dearborn and took a streetcar home. Only a porter at the airport greeted him. “Nice going, Mr. Schemansky,” the porter said.
Schemansky, who was more revered internationally, became a barb in the geopolitical spat across the Iron Curtain. Here’s an example from TASS, the Soviet press organ of the period. “The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world.”
When Schemansky turned 91 last year, his friends got together and threw him a party in Michigan. As Arthur Chidlovski explained in his blog post of this celebration, “…on the record, the name of Norbert Schemansky appears more often in the history books of the Olympics than the names of such brand name athletes as Gordy Howe or Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, Tom Brady or Tiger Woods. Sports experts and fans definitely appreciate all the dedication and fantastic performance in sports by Norbert Schemansky.”
Here is a compilation of other remembrances of Norbert “Norb” Schemansky.